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Today, I’m going to take a look at the bizarre 2009 science-fiction horror-drama, Splice.
The plot of Splice is summarized on IMDb as follows:
Genetic engineers Clive Nicoli and Elsa Kast hope to achieve fame by successfully splicing together the DNA of different animals to create new hybrid animals for medical use.
Splice was co-written and directed by Vincenzo Natali, who is known for the films Cube, Cypher, and Nothing, as well as stints direction on shows like Hannibal, WestWorld, Luke Cage, and American Gods.
One of the other credited writers for the film was Doug Taylor, who also wrote A Christmas Horror Story and In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale.
The cast of Splice includes the likes of Adrien Brody (The Pianist, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Brothers Bloom, Predators, The Experiment), Sarah Polley (Go, Dawn of the Dead, Mr. Nobody), David Hewlett (Cube, The Shape of Water), and Brandon McGibbon (Saw V).
The cinematographer for the film was Tetsuo Nagata, whose other shooting credits include La Vie en Rose and Renegade.
The editor for Splice was Michele Conroy, who is known for work on the television shows Penny Dreadful and Vikings, as well as movies like like Pompeii, Ginger Snaps 2, and Mama.
The effects for Splice were provided in part by KNB EFX, an acclaimed special effects makeup studio that was formed by Greg Nicotero, Robert Kurtzman, and Howard Berger. The company has worked on television shows and movies like The Walking Dead, Sin City, Breaking Bad, Django: Unchained, Drag Me To Hell, The Mist, Preacher, Horns, Kill Bill, Spawn, From Dusk Til Dawn, Minority Report, Misery, Army of Darkness, Deadwood, and countless others.
Beloved director Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy, The Shape of Water) served as an executive producer for Splice. In an interview with ComingSoon.net, Del Toro said that he produced the film because of how much director Vincenzo Natali impressed him with his previous films, and how interesting he found the subject matter:
You know, there’s a line that never gets crossed from the earliest myth of Frankenstein or the Golem. There is always a familiar relationship. They can be father and son. The neglected son and father. They always follow that dynamic at the center. With Splice, Vincenzo has made a really sick family dynamic within the characters of the piece that is Splice. If they do want to see a couple of those lines fully crossed by the filmmakers, they should go see Splice. It takes them places where, normally, movies in the genre are going to play it safe. It’s not often that a major release gets to play with moral borders that we dare not to cross.
Another notable Hollywood figure who threw his weight behind Splice as an executive producer was Joel Silver, an action movie icon who was behind films like Predator, Road House, The Nice Guys, V For Vendetta, The Matrix, Swordfish, Die Hard, and 48 Hours. When asked what drew him to Splice, Silver said:
I saw one of the stills of the movie in one of the trade papers and it intrigued me. I like the Frankenstein story and I’m a big fan of gothic horror, and I just thought it was an interesting idea and a new way to tell the story. I saw the log line, said that I would like to see the movie, they sent me the movie and I had no idea what I was going to see. I had not read the script. I just watched the movie. When that scene came along, I said, “They’re not going to show us that. They can’t possibly show that.” And then, I said, “I can’t deal with this.” I just felt it was so effective that people would want to see the movie.
Apparently, the effects team created 11 different versions of the Dren creature for the film, each representing different stages of the creature’s life cycle.
Delphine Chanéac, who portrays the adult version of Dren, had her face digitally manipulated to move her eyes further apart from each other, in order to create an unnerving effect for audiences.
Critics and audiences were relatively split over Splice: critics tended to treat the bizarre content and story more warmly, while general audiences were less than enthusiastic about the film. Currently, Splice holds Rotten Tomatoes scores of 75% from critics and 37% from audiences, alongside an IMDb user score of 5.7/10.
One such critic who was impressed by Splice was The AV Club’s Keith Phipps, who gave the film a B+ rating:
Natali’s film cleverly exploits Dren’s uncanny semi-humanity…her bald head and the tail poking out beneath her dress give her away…[a] thriving, disturbing, thoughtful mutant of a movie.
Roger Ebert also gave the film a positive review, referring to it as “well done” and “intriguing.” It is hard to argue that the movie isn’t at least “intriguing,” as the story is basically a hybrid of a ghastly prestige family drama and a horror sci-fi schlock-fest like Species – the combination makes for strange beast.
The effects for the film range from being absolutely astounding to clearly dated and distracting, depending on the scene. The underpinning designs, however, are universally fantastic. The best element of the effects work, however, is something I already mentioned – the digital manipulation of Dren’s face, in order to deliberately create an uncanny valley effect for inciting audience disease. Frankly, that is nothing short of brilliant, and it works well for its purpose.
As far as the writing goes, the concept might be worthy of a prestige stage, but the characters are not. While this is definitely a good attempt to write interesting sci-fi based on contemporary ethical issues, the film’s characters never get much depth – they are just vessels for the message. This is somewhat bizarre for a Promethean or Oedipal story line where the characters should be key, but there is a definite lack of relatable qualities for all of the human characters. Their actions surrounding Dren all feel either unmotivated, unprompted, or irrational, whether they are acting in defense or aggression towards the being. However, none of the characters are as inconsistent or incomprehensible as Dren.
To put it frankly, Dren’s behavior is difficult to grasp – for a creature that is a hybrid of human and miscellaneous animals, it never acts like a median between the two. Dren either behaves like an unrestrained animal, or as a human child, with no in-between. The screenplay takes this as license to never justify Dren’s actions with motivations, which makes for a confusing experience. While this was probably intentional in order to make the audience feel as confused and wary as the characters, it didn’t necessarily make for a good watching experience – Dren never feels like a character, because there are never coherent causes for actions, and emotions rise and fall without prompting. The instability of the character at times comes off as lapses of logic in the screenplay.
Overall, I enjoyed Splice for the most part. That said, it is certainly disturbing in a very niche way, playing on Oedipal themes with science-fiction violence. It is pretty far from a great film, and it definitely could have used more screenplay work on the back half of the film, as I pretty much disengaged with the third act, but the concept here was interesting and novel enough to get my buy-in. When it comes to a recommendation, however, I’d only advise science-fiction fans give this a shot if they are ok with watching a film with sexual assault in the content, as that comes up in a big way as the film goes on.